When the Stars of Titanic Helped Pay the Bills for the Last Titanic Survivor

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet at the Oscars in 2016.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet at the Oscars in 2016. / Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In 2003, 91-year-old Titanic survivor Millvina Dean was invited to a screening of Ghosts of the Abyss, James Cameron’s documentary about exploring the Titanic shipwreck. She declined.

“I don’t mind talking,” Dean said, according to the BBC, “but I don’t want to see that film.”

In fact, she didn’t want to see any film about the Titanic; she’d avoided Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, too. Dean’s only big-screen brush with the disaster had been 1958’s A Night to Remember, which she’d found “too distressing” to bear.

Her feelings were well-founded. Dean was about 2 months old when she boarded the ill-fated ocean liner with her family, making her the youngest of some 700 survivors—and much too young to remember the 1912 tragedy herself. But what she did remember was its lifelong effect on her family. Dean, her older brother, and her mother escaped unscathed on a lifeboat as the ship began to sink, but her father stayed aboard and died in the wreck.

Instead of continuing on to settle in Kansas City as planned, the family returned to England, where Dean lived her whole life. During her later years, she participated in many Titanic-related events and programs, and the Titanic Historical Society even sponsored her visit to Kansas City in 1997.

While entrepreneurs and movie stars hugely profited off the public’s ongoing fascination with the Titanic, Dean’s firsthand experience hardly made her rich. By 2009, she had been forced to auction off some personal artifacts—including the donated clothes her family wore after the rescue vessel deposited them in the U.S.—to cover her nursing home bills. (The winning bidder did, however, give the items back to her for free.)

So in early May of that year, Irish author Don Mullan, a longtime friend of Dean's, led the charge to raise money for her. He himself sold copies of a photo he’d taken of Dean and turned his earnings over to what was dubbed the “Millvina Fund.” And then he called upon the major players in the making of 1997’s Titanic—namely, James Cameron, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, 20th Century Fox, and Celine Dion—to match his contribution.

“There were people out there who could, and I felt, morally should, help her. To fail Millvina Dean, the last tangible living link to the Titanic, would make a mockery of the world's expressed concern for the tragedy,” Mullan explained to Independent.ie.

His public plea actually worked. According to Reuters, Cameron, Winslet, and DiCaprio gave a combined $30,000 to the fund. Dean, for her part, was mainly just bothered by the influx of phone calls brought on by the attention.

“I was watching the 10 o’clock news last night, half-asleep, then I looked up and said, ‘Coo, that’s me!’” she told The Irish Times. “All I get now are phone calls all day from people asking me how I feel about Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m absolutely browned off with all the phoning!”

Soon after, Dean fell ill with pneumonia, which she wouldn’t recover from. When she passed away at age 97 on May 31, 2009—98 years to the day that the Titanic first launched from Belfast—she was the ship’s last living survivor.

[h/t Reuters]